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Rhymes that Don't (Poetic Terms)

Writing Help 129 | -   Freelance Writer
Apr 06, 2013 | #1
Poetic Terms You Have to Learn

Rhymes that Don't

Although many of you may be puzzling over the title of this article, rest assured that I have not made it in error, though I do not advise using this sort of shorthanded construction on your next essay. The more I work with and research poetry and its various manifestations (like popular music), the more I realize that our usual definition of rhyme isn't really sufficient. We have what is known by scholars as perfect rhyme (some professional terminology isn't very complicated at all, it seems) when an identical sound exists between two words on their stressed syllables, as in slap and pap, remind and behind, and moxy and Roxy. However, there are many other kinds of rhyme that exist which, while they seem to follow the regular rules as they should, or almost capture the identical sounds needed for perfect rhyme, actually end up slightly missing the mark.

Rhymes in WritingThe most obvious case of the abuse of the traditional definition of rhyme occurs when a poet or singer attempts to use a word as a rhyme for itself, as we can see in the following lines:

I love you more than all the world
I want to show you my whole world

This is known as identity rhyme, and although it can be used effectively at times, it most often simply comes off as being a kind of aural cheat; part of the allure of rhyme is the similarity it presents within a context of subtle difference, and identity rhyme removes the necessary contrast. A subspecies of identity rhyme occurs when one or both rhymes in the rhyming pair begin on a consonant, as in the pair ran and Iran. Again, little more than repetition is taking place here, and though this usage is relatively common, it does not please me at all.

Next we have what is technically known as an imperfect rhyme, and this is where a rhyme occurs between a stressed and an unstressed syllable. The following lines are a good example of this often unfortunate use of sound:

My dream in life was only to see her,
But all I got was pastry from the baker.

The rhyme here is obviously supposed to be between the unstressed final syllable in baker, and the word her, and taken out of context, these form a good rhyme. However, because the er of baker is an unstressed syllable, while her is stressed, you find yourself either missing the rhyme altogether, or warping the usual emphasis the word baker warrants, causing you to mispronounce it. Again, this device has its place, but when it is used in a place where we would expect a perfect rhyme, it sounds flat and desperate.

Another rhyme that has made its way into popular culture is the dreaded semi-rhyme. As the name indicates, a rhyming sound certainly occurs, but it is only really a half-rhyme, and does not obtain between the words completely. An example will make this painfully obvious:

I know my beauty truly loves to prance,
When under the umbrella top she dances.

The rhyme here is between prance and dances, of course, and while the rhyme is on the stressed syllables, the extra syllable on the end of dances, the es, is an irritating thorn in the side of perfect rhyme. This is precisely what defines semi-rhyme, an extra unstressed final syllable on the end of one of the words in a rhyming pair that has nothing to do with the rhyme, and appears completely superfluous. It is often added for the sake of grammatical correctness, but in my opinion, it would be far batter to try to rearrange the whole sentence, even the entire preceding stanza, than to leave this loose end hanging on.

When I realized that there was more than enough material for a two-part article on this topic, I had to get up and walk around, searching for some quality poetry with excellent and subtle uses of rhyme to keep me sane. Unfortunately for me, and unfortunately in general, even the greatest poets of all time are prone to using rhymes that don't (rhyme), and a favorite device of the old masters rakes across the eardrums like chalk on fingernails (and yes I said that on purpose; imagine how that would sound and feel?). That device is known as eye-rhyme, and although this might seem like an oxymoron (after all, what has rhyme got to do with one's eyes?), once you see it in use, the term will make perfect sense.

Take the following lines from the immortal Robert Burns as a prime example of eye-rhyme:

The chanting linnet, or the mellow thrush,
Hailing the setting sun, sweet, in the green thorn bush;

Read these lines several times, both to yourself and aloud, and ask yourself whether these lines rhyme or not. I did, and after a short time, the answer became clear: they rhyme visually, but not aurally. The key words in question here are thrush and bush, and if you repeat them over and over, you will come no closer to discovering their rhyming unity. However, looking at them, one can see that they probably should rhyme, and if a non-native English speaker were to see them together without ever having heard them, that person would say that the words certainly rhymed. Their argument would be that each is one syllable, and that the vowel sound in each, preceded by a consonant or consonant combination, and followed by the identical consonant combination in each word, should be the same, and therefore rhyming. However, because of irregularities and eccentricities with English pronunciation, these words do not, nor did they even for Burns, constitute an aural rhyming pair. However, because they look like they should certainly rhyme, based on their spelling, we call this an eye-rhyme; you can see it, but you can't hear it.

From the lofty heights of Burns we descend to the reaches of the everyday once more, and end this discussion with the closest-of-close, the almost-but-not-quite champion of the rhyming world, the slant rhyme. Read the following lines, and see if you can figure out what this term refers to from the example alone:

Yesterday I had a frightful dream
I transformed from an adult to a teen!

The words here that are desperately trying to rhyme are dream and teen, and while they are very close, they don't quite match. Teen rhymes with bean, lean, and mean, while dream rhymes with team, cream, and scream. The powerful vowel sound which occupies the center of each of these words makes them sound remarkably similar, and I have seen almost every word on this list used interchangeably with all of the others in the place of true rhymes. However, strictly speaking, this just doesn't work. Throwing one such slant rhyme into an otherwise solid rhyme scheme is a forgivable offence, and might even add variety. Done too often, however, such rhymes will poison your rhyme scheme all together.

By the same token, beware of terribly mean poets that you might encounter in your next English course who construct a rhyme scheme that uses slant rhyme in place of perfect rhyme in some places, and as a completely different rhyming sequence in others. This makes for a marbles-in-the-mouth effect that can be poetically desirable in some cases, but which makes for massive headaches when it comes to determining what is supposed to rhyme with what.

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